There’s so much more to yoga than what happens on the mat. The Yoga Sutras were penned by possibly the most famous yoga philosopher Patanjali between 2,000 – 3,000 years ago.
These 196 Sutras or threads of knowledge that can be used as guide to find an enlightened life – one filled with happiness, purpose and intention.
If you’re in need a fresh perspective or a little push in the direction, the Sutras offer an ancient wisdom that can still be applied in today’s modern world.
Within these texts, Patanjali presents a path called the eight limbs of yoga. This is where the practice really goes beyond showing up in studio!
A guide to the eight limbs of yoga
The below eight limbs of yoga may initially seem a little complicated but think of them as suggestions on how to deal with our everyday stresses in life.
- Yama – Restraints
- Niyama – Disciplines
- Asana – Physical postures
- Pranayama – Breath control
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Concentration
- Dyhana – Meditation
- Samadhi – Bliss or enlightenment
What are the Yamas of yoga?
Yama is all about our interactions with ourselves and others. It’s almost like the moral compass of yoga – or the principles of living for how to act in the world.
There are five yamas Patanjali encourages yogis to follow:
AHIMSA (non-violence, non-harm)
Ahimsa can be perceived as how we treat ourselves and others; both in thought and with actions. It’s really about how to live with compassion and includes how we treat our bodies and deal with injuries, and becoming in tune with our thoughts to chill when we feel anger or stress.
This is a little more straightforward than ahimsa – meaning “don’t lie” – and encourages us to be truthful in our thoughts, words and actions. Even when we think it’s easier to hide.
Asteya goes beyond non-stealing physical things. The principle speaks to not longing to have someone else’s success or life – to be comfortable with what we have – and to the concept as a while. This might include not stealing someone’s time by running late or their attention if they’re concentrating.
A slightly trickier one as Patanjali is definitely believed to have meant celibacy… how most modern yogis approach brahmacharya though is to only offer your sexuality to those who deserve it and will respect you, so you can respect yourself, in turn.
Ah, maybe one of the most relevant in today’s consumer driven world. Aparigraha refers to not associating happiness with shopping or objects. It’s about keeping in the present moment and letting go of collecting things; to live a more simpler life without stuff you don’t need.
The Niyamas are your guide to living better. While the Yamas speak about how not to be, the Niyamas concentrate more on self-disciplines and what to do.
There are five Niyamas to follow:
SAUCHA (cleanliness or purity)
This refers to both our physical bodies – think regular showers, showing up on the mat and practising pranayama – but also to be pure of mind. Limiting negative thoughts about ourselves and others.
It’s important to keep your surroundings positive; be it the food you eat, the drinks you take, the people you spend time with and the aesthetics of the space you live in.
Be present. We hear it all the time in yoga and this rule asks us to live in the moment off the mat too.
Santosa asks us to stop planning ahead and enjoy where we are, right now. This can be tricky in today’s modern world where we tend to want more and feel like life might be better if we get a bigger salary, a new house or find someone else. Feeling content with all we have – which is so much in the western world – becomes easier when you set a daily intention to practice gratitude and appreciate what’s in front of you.
The sanskrit word “tap” means to burn so “tapas” is often referred to as heat or self discipline. You may have heard this in class when the teacher is asking you to hold a strong pose and to tap into the tapas – the staying power to move through it.
Tapas can also mean getting out of bed when the alarm goes off to show up on the mat or seeing through a commitment you’ve made.
This Niyama speaks to self-awareness – to reflect on our actions and thoughts. The better we know ourselves, the more we’re able to have control over our actions and emotions.
Svadhayaya helps us to be more mindful of how we interact with others and the world so we can let go of any unhelpful tendencies we might have and be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
ISVARA PRANIDHANA (devotion to God)
Patanjali didn’t mention a particular God in the sutras. Rather, he asked that we put our energy and devotion toward our own gods – Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or maybe even ourselves – and recognise the concept of spirituality.
Isvara Pranidhana asks us to acknowledge that there is a larger force directing our lives and guiding us.
Asanas, or the postures in yoga, is the limb that most of us are most familiar with.
Yoga has so many benefits. It improves our physical strength, endurance, balance and flexibility, and works to quiet the mind and help us hone our concentration, and focus.
When practised with the breath, yoga can be a form of moving meditation. This helps us to find that sense of calm, happiness and peace, which many of us feel after asana practice.
Often, what we experience on the mat transcends into other areas in our lives. When we commit to a regular practice, certain emotions and thoughts can arise that we then address in the ‘real world’ after class. This might be realising that perhaps we’re in the wrong job or relationship, or that we want to pursue a dream.
Asana practice works to expand our self-awareness and consciousness, and this can lead to discovering how we really want to live and what makes us truly happy.
“Prana” means “energy” or “life-force”, and “ayama” means “control”. Yogis practice pranayama to clear the channels in our minds in preparation for meditation. This can be as simple as just taking one minute in your day to pause and breathe thoughtfully.
What are the benefits of Pranayama?
When we practice pranayama or breath control, we can find a calmness in the mind and more attuned to how we feel, rather than how we think.
In yoga, it’s said that the breath, or energy, flows through pathways in our body called the nadis. Pranayama helps us to clear these pathways and cleanse them – increasing our mental and physical health.
You may have heard your yoga teacher refer to ‘ujjayi’ breath in class. This equally soothing and energising breathing technique involves making a slight constriction at the back of your throat and breathing in and out through your nose. It’s an audible breath that almost sounds like a sigh or rolling ocean waves.
It takes practice but when you use ujjayi breath during asana practice, it can help you move through more challenging postures and find a deeper expression in the movements, and feel a greater sense of relaxation and contentment when you reach Savasana or walk out of the studio.
The fifth limb, pratyahara, is particularly helpful for yogis today. We live in an all-encompassing world of smartphones, conflicting responsibilities and appointments, and our senses are overwhelmed with advertisements, relentless emails and text messages.
Pratyahara asks us to withdraw from these stimuli so we can return to our thoughts.
This isn’t easy to do, we know.
The concept of pratyahara is to be aware of our surroundings but to make a deliberate and conscious effort to look inwards instead of engaging with them.
One of the best ways to practice pratyahara is Savasana. Also known as corpse pose, Savasana is to be completely still and to be aware of our bodies, but to let go of our thoughts, worries or expectations.
You might notice a student breathing next to you in Savasana or the teacher playing soft music in the background but instead of tuning in and thinking about it, you simply observe – you know these sounds exist but you do not react. This is the idea of pratyahara and the peace we feel when we practice it is why Savasana is considered to be the most important yoga pose!
Each of the eight limbs prepares for the next. Dharana moves us to a total concentration of the mind.
When we practice pratyahara, the fifth limb, we make an effort to withdraw our minds away from our environment and to turn inwards. Once we’ve let the stimuli go, dharana then asks us to tackle the flow of our thoughts and to concentrate on one single thing. This might be a mantra, sound or vision. It’s not really important what the object of focus is, the purpose is to quiet the mind with this total concentration.
Dharana is an important step on our way to the next step, Dhyana, meditation. We need to be able to concentrate the mind before we can
How do you practice dharana?
One of our favourite yoga journals Do You Yoga recommends we start practicing Dharana by “trying to concentrate on one thing at a time, whatever that may be. When you eat, just eat and don’t read and browse the internet at the same time. When you go out for a walk, just walk and don’t talk to your friends on the phone.
Instead of browsing through magazines or the internet, read something substantial where your mind has to really focus on for a period of time. When you wash the dishes, focus purely on what you are doing. These are all ways to start to practice Dharana in your life.
Then you can slowly move towards more focused concentration, towards meditation and eventually towards glimpses of unity with the whole.
Until then, find peace and joy in the practice, in trusting yourself, in not giving up and showing up for yourself.”
Next up Dhyana – meditation, or reaching a meditative state of mind. This seventh limb builds upon asana (the physical poses in yoga), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (moving our focus inwards), and dharana (concentration).
Our minds are interesting places. They create worries, concerns and often anxiety around experiences or future events that have yet to take place.
A central idea of mindfulness practice is that “you are not your thoughts and feelings” and you can choose to give them more or less value.
Patanjali tells us “yoga chitti vritti nirodha” – yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. So many of us experience this sweet sensation of stillness in Savasana after our asana practice, which keeps us coming back for more.
When we move with the breath, physical tension ebbs away and we allow the mind to settle – presenting us with moments of peace that we all need.
Dhyana is a similar practice. It asks us to surrender and let go of these fluctuations of the mind – moving towards a more truthful, happier and content version of ourselves.
When we practice the sixth limb, dharana, we are training our mind to stay focused, in dhyana, we take one step further and let go of the focus point while keeping our thoughts at bay.
It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But like our asana practice, when we dedicate ourselves to the practice and show up for class, change will happen.
Meditation and dhyana are slightly different in that meditation is often the use of a range of techniques to find stillness and peace, while dhyana is a state of being without being lost in thought.
What are the benefits of dhyana?
For thousands of years, those who practice dhyana or meditation have touted many physical and mental benefits.
In recent times, a growing number of scientific studies and research have corroborated that the practice has been proved to:
- Reduce stress
- Improve energy levels, concentration and sleep
- Lower blood pressure
- Enhance immune function
- Lead to increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing
- Slow aging due to changes in brain physiology
- Induce relaxation
- Increases social connection and decreases loneliness
- Lower risks of depression and anxiety
How to start practicing dhyana?
The ideal time to start is following an asana practice. Find a comfortable seat – sitting up crossed legged or supported by a wall – and make sure you’re in a quiet space with no interruptions.
Close your eyes and start to focus on the breath. Begin to relax each muscle incrementally. Starting with your feet, gradually release tension in your muscles going all the way up to the crown of your head.
Breathe deeply and if you’re holding tension anywhere, focus on that part of your body and try to release that tension before you continue on.
Turn your mind to your breath. Begin to clear your mind of all other thoughts and think only of your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose and out through your mouth – filling your lungs from the top to the bottom.
Continue in this way for 10 to 20 breath cycles, keeping your mind focused on your breath. If any thoughts come in, which they inevitably will when we begin the practice, acknowledge the thought and then let it go, gently pulling your mind back to your breath.
Start practicing for just five to ten minutes each session, and lengthen the time from there.
Samadhi, the final step in the eight limbs of yoga, is the ultimate state of mind and being.
Patanjali describes this stage as a “state of ecstasy”. The yogi comes to realise a connection with all living things; a feeling of bliss and enlightenment, and of being at one with the universe.
This may seem left of field – especially when most of us spend our days running between commitments or seated in front of a computer screen – but it is said that we all have the ability to achieve this state and in the moments we do, the experience can only be described as a deep sense of contentment, bliss and peace.
Isn’t that worth showing up on the mat and working to practice yoga in all areas of our lives?
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